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The Curse of Moose Lake: Chapter 2

We are pleased to release the second chapter of THE CURSE OF MOOSE LAKE by Bethany Helwig, the start of a new YA urban fantasy series set to publish October 18, 2016. The third chapter will be released next Friday leading up to launch day.

Read the second chapter for free below:

CHAPTER 2

 

I never appreciated how well Cobb could drive until he manages to evade every police car trying to find us. I also never realized how many profanities Cobb knows. He lets them out in a spew until he regains himself enough to phone in to the director of the Minneapolis Division of the IMS. Cobb explains the situation and requests agents to secure the Werevine Pharmaceutical building and scrub all the surveillance footage before the police can identify Hawk and me.

I stare out the window and listen to the director yell through the cell phone. Hawk and I share a look of apprehension. It’s not like we had a lot of options at the time when the shapeshifters were trying to kill me, but this is bad. Drawing attention to our work is one of the worst things we can do, but that’s exactly what happened. I gaze out at the Mississippi River on my left. The sun is still high and the water reflects painful shards of light into my eyes. The trees bordering the river are nearly bare as fall creeps over Minnesota, each October day growing colder. The leafless birches and poplars wave boney fingers at me as the SUV curves along the road.

“Yes, sir,” Cobb says into his phone, holding it slightly away from his ear as the director continues to shout at him. “I’m on Main Street right now. We’ll be at the top of the laboratory in a few minutes.” Cobb glances back at me in the rear-view mirror. “Yes, sir. I will.”

As soon as he hangs up, Cobb chucks the phone into the cup holder in the center console. “Why do I have to be the one to babysit a couple of delinquents? Are you two insane?” he snaps at us.

We both remain silent. We quickly discovered from the beginning to keep silent during Cobb’s frequent tirades. Interrupting him only makes him angrier.

He swings off Main Street and into the Supra Energy Power Park. After a quick chat with the guard and a flash of Cobb’s badge, we’re let through. He pulls into the parking lot just past the power park and before the Flumen Laboratory. He backs up to a small cement bunker on the rear side of the lot shaded by trees, rams the shifter into park, stalks out of the SUV, and slams the door behind him.

“How bad do you think?” Hawk asks quietly.

“I don’t know,” I answer. “Optimistically, they’ll just suspend us. I think. Worst case, we get kicked out of Underground.”

I see the muscles in his face tighten and I know he’s thinking the same thing I am. If we get kicked out there’s nowhere for us to go. We’ve been orphans since we were four and Underground is the only home we know. The IMS and its world are our family.

Cobb opens the rear hatch and just gestures to us, apparently unable to look us in the eye. His mop of hair continues to shake with his suppressed fury. Hawk and I ease out of our seats and meet him at the back. He points to the bodies, points to us, then starts to walk to the cement bunker. Taking the hint, we lift the bodies ourselves, sling them over our shoulders fireman style, and follow Cobb into the building. Inside are two guards bearing the IMS logo on their uniforms—a dragon crouched over a shield bearing the division’s name. Cobb complains to them, uses a few more swear words, and the guards let us pass through a thick metal door.

I’m familiar with the room and the procedure. This is just one of the many entrances for humans like us to enter Underground. Its walls are all gray cement and there’s nothing in it except for two black platforms that can hold a good twenty people each. We gather on one and Cobb hits a button on the top of the platform’s control pedestal. The platform shudders and starts gliding down an angled tunnel. I have to readjust the berserker across my shoulders to keep my balance as the platform picks up speed.

Cold, wet air blows into my face from intervals along the long tunnel down, down, down. I can almost hear the roar of the Mississippi River as we pass beneath it to the very bottom of the riverbed and a little deeper still until the platform slows to a stop in a nearly identical cement room as the one up top. Bernie, the guard at the bottom of the chute, is snoozing in a chair. His graying hair nearly hides the little horns sticking out of the top of his head but is unable to conceal his deer-like ears. A pair of cloven hooves sticks out of the bottom of his maroon slacks.

When Cobb shoves open the metal exit door and it gives a whiny creak, Bernie jerks awake with a snort and nods to us.

“Hey, kids,” Bernie the faun says with a smile. I always liked Bernie. Every time I see him he’s got a smile and friendly greeting waiting for me. He’s the poster child for faun hospitality. “How did your first mission go?”

“Not well. Idiots,” Cobb growls and hustles through the door.

I grimace and promise to tell him later before Hawk and I chase after Cobb to keep up, our captives nearly slipping off our shoulders.

As soon as we step through the doors it’s like entering a whole different world. Colors, sounds, and smells all blend together into something fantastic and instantly familiar. The cement walls stretch up fifty feet high and are covered in bright banners bearing different crests and depictions of all the legendary races that reside within this hidden city beneath the Mississippi River.

I take a deep breath of the aroma coming from the center of Market Square twenty feet in front of us. Buildings designed after different ancient structures—from the red-titled temples of Japan to the arched basilica of Rome to the mud-brick shops of Mesopotamia—stand brilliant and draped in even more color. Down the first row I spot the source of the mouthwatering smell—Old Man Two, a crabby but gifted centaur, is mixing a massive cauldron of stew. Farther down I see a group of young fauns fighting over muffins sold at Giant’s Reach, a pair of water sprites and nymphs bartering over soil at Madame Rush’s Emporium, and a doddery unicorn giving a ride to a young elf. Up high on the roofs are the gargoyles, hulking stone creatures animated by magic to act as Underground’s vigilant protectors. Home sweet home.

I still have vague memories of when I first came here with Hawk. Only four years old, we were terrified by all the strange otherworldly things until a kindly faun became our guardian and eased us into the world of legendary and mythical creatures. Now, having spent most my life here, I can’t imagine living anywhere else. It’s the outside world that seems strange. An unpleasant twinge twists my gut. I hope our recklessness earlier today won’t cost us this place we’ve learned to call home.

As I stand there considering what it would be like to live somewhere mundane like Chicago, a group of IMS agents pulling two hospital gurneys part the crowds through the middle of Merchant Square. They don’t speak a word to me or Hawk but whisper in undertones with Cobb, so we plop the shapeshifters onto the gurneys. I roll my shoulders trying to work out the kink I got from hauling a berserker around and eventually Cobb motions for us to follow the agents pushing the gurneys through Merchant Square.

I try not to make eye contact with any of the shopkeepers or customers. I know all of the creatures that live in Underground. My brother and I have been here for fourteen years. Most of the creatures buying fried snails or trading ancient coins I recognize or know by name.

We pass shop after shop until we reach the colonnade. Long rows of cherry trees covered with pink blossoms lead directly to the heart of Underground. Shallow fountains stand at regular intervals down the lane and flecks of water touch my skin when a couple of water sprites decide now’s a good time to invite me to play with them. Their child-like shapes formed of water sit giggling in the pool of a nearby fountain and beckon me towards them. I wave them off and keep moving. Warm light filters through the branches overhead by the magic of a fire sprite to keep the trees alive all year long and dries some of the dampness out of my clothes. This is one of my favorite places in Underground. I wonder vaguely if this will be my last time seeing it.

The trees end and we stand before the very center of Underground. Another agent comes out to greet us and talks with Cobb. I stare up at the glossy black wall of IMS Headquarters that stretches almost all the way up to the ceiling. The artificial sunlight behind me gleams off its surface and illuminates golden letters etched in bold above the entrance. Protectors of legends. Secrecy is our shield. Knowledge is our weapon.

The shapeshifters are carted away to the right towards the penitent cells but Cobb takes us straight to the head offices. We enter the black door and it’s as if someone flicked a switch and everything magical in Underground never happened. The inside is like any generic human building—off-white walls, tan carpet, ordinary sized chairs, two sofas, and a front desk. The only things exceptional are the pictures of various dragons hanging on the walls. The receptionist greets us with a smile but her expression quickly melts into shock when Cobb whispers to her. She nods after a few words and dials someone, speaking quietly into the receiver before hanging up.

Cobb turns back to us. “You two stay here and don’t do anything stupid. Think you can handle that?”

“Uhh . . .” Hawk says in a dull drone, clearly done being his usual charming self. “Like right here? Freeze where we’re standing? Or can we sit down?”

Cobb doesn’t even respond but sweeps away down the only hallway and disappears from sight. Once he’s gone we collapse onto separate sofas. Now that my adrenaline has worn off, the coffee burn on my shoulder is really starting to ache. I gently rub it and stare down the long hallway. The only sound is the receptionist clicking away at her keyboard.

An old memory surfaces of the first time I was brought here. After all the strange things in Merchant Square, the normal rooms of headquarters had been a welcome relief. Nowadays they feel grossly out of place. We had come here during a storm. I remember dripping a puddle of water onto the floor in the exact same place I’m sitting now. I quickly push the thought out of my mind, of being that scared little girl. Such thoughts will only lead to painful memories.

We sit in the reception area longer than I can control my patience. Hawk and I stand at the same time and begin to pace. Every time we cross paths we reach out and give each other a low five. It has always been our way of saying we’re there for each other.

The phone rings at the receptionist’s desk. She picks up and doesn’t speak a word before hanging up again.

“Director Knox will see you now,” she says.

I take a deep breath and walk step in step with Hawk down the hallway. We turn left, go up a flight of stairs, and then go right. A glass wall opens up on our left along the next hallway. While the interior of the building may seem generic, what stands through the glass is anything but. I look out on a stone courtyard nestled in the center of IMS headquarters with nothing in it except a peculiar archway. It’s of the same glossy black finish as the exterior of headquarters and bears golden letters but they are in a language I don’t understand. The script is jagged and sharp, then fluid in other places—the language of dragons. I don’t know why but it’s always sent my heart thundering whenever I see it. If I stare at it long enough, the air around the arch seems to waver and spark with hidden power. I quickly look away and turn down another hallway on our right.

A single door stands at the end with a nameplate boasting DIRECTOR DAVID KNOX across its lacquer finish. We both pause in front of it. I’ve only been in this office three times before—twice for “unruly incidents” and once to be granted junior agent status. Hawk stands frozen so I reach up, wrinkle my nose, and knock.

“Come in,” a deep voice says muffled through the door. I obey and enter followed by my brother. “Close the door.”

I swallow involuntarily and do as I’m told. I turn back around, stand straight, and clasp my hands together behind my back to mimic my brother’s stance.

This room is like the rest of headquarters except there are black and white photos of dead presidents hanging on the walls alongside medals and military commendations in neat frames. A single tinted window overlooks the colonnade. Before it stands a heavy desk bare of anything except a single open file and a cup of coffee. The smell of it makes me realize I’m still wearing my silk blouse with a huge coffee stain along the top.

Cobb stands with his back to us and his hands are twitching like he wants to strangle something. Standing across from him behind the desk is Director David Knox. He’s a good foot taller than any of us—I used to think he had giant blood in him—and his skin is a shade darker than his mahogany desk. The fluorescents reflect off his bald dome but are unable to touch his dark eyes. He’s in a crisp suit that puts the rest of our attires to shame and makes him seem even taller. His even stare makes my palms start to sweat. He’s always been intimidating.

“Cobb just finished explaining what happened,” he says, his deep baritone loud in the office. “Do you have any idea what you two have done?”

I’m not sure if I’m supposed to respond or if it’s a rhetorical question. I wait it out but when Director Knox continues to stare, I sputter, “We were just—”

“Doing everything the IMS is not supposed to do,” he booms. I have a feeling he was waiting for an answer just so he could cut me off. This isn’t looking good. “Tell me what our motto is.”

Hawk and I say in unison, “Protectors of legends. Secrecy is our shield. Knowledge is our weapon.”

“Exactly!” He begins to pace and gestures out the tinted window to the colonnade beyond. “The whole point of Underground is secrecy, to keep this world hidden from those who would fear it. You’ve nearly exposed us all! I had to send in a team to clean up your mess and try to make excuses to the local authorities.”

“With all due respect,” Hawk says, “we stopped two dangerous shapeshifters.”

“By nearly destroying an entire floor of a building!” The director slams a fist on his desk and we all jump. “Do you even know what Werevine Pharmaceutical does? You two of all people should know what they produce.”

I glance uneasily at my brother. We’re broaching a very touchy topic. “They produce the werewolf serum,” I say quietly.

“Yes!” Director Knox rolls back his shoulders and takes a deep breath, making a clear show of reigning in his temper. “They’re one of the largest manufacturers of the medicine that keeps your kind in their human minds.” He points at Hawk for emphasis. “Now who knows how long before the company will be back up and running?”

“That was the whole point, sir,” I interject, suddenly angry for him badgering my brother for something that isn’t even his fault. It’s not like Hawk chose to be bitten and become a werewolf. “What were the shapeshifters doing at the company and why were they going through the records of werewolves? We were just trying to—”

“I don’t care what you were trying to do. If you figured out there were shapeshifters, you should have gotten out of there and notified your superior so we could send proper agents in to do the job.” The director massages his bald head and stares out the window. “I should have seen this coming. You’ve always been troublemakers. I still remember when you convinced a water sprite to haunt a high school water fountain. You’ve never fit easily into the human world.”

I clench my jaw and fight back raw emotion in my throat. I’m furious but the director’s also right. Once Underground became our home, the rest of the world became odd. We don’t belong there anymore, not since my brother became a werewolf and I became something of an oddity myself.

“I knew your stint of field training as junior agents was going to end in disaster,” the director continues, pacing again behind his desk. “If you two didn’t have a certain dragon pushing to get you into the action, I never would have agreed to send you out.”

My head snaps up. A dragon has been campaigning for us to become agents? I thought we got into the IMS because they finally got sick of saying no to our staggering number of requests to join.

“Which dragon?” I ask.

Director Knox gives me his signature hard stare and plants both hands on his desk to level with me. “You know which one.”

“Sir,” Cobb interrupts. “What are we going to do with them?”

“All three of you will be suspended.”

Cobb leans forward, his mop of hair shaking yet again and his face turning red. “Excuse me, all three of us?”

“That’s right. You were supposed to be in Werevine with them. Instead, you let them run free and destroy part of a company while you were on a smoke break. Get out of my office, Cobb. Go turn in your badge and weapon at the armory.”

I flinch as Cobb hurtles past me and slams the door on his way out. A hollow feeling fills my chest. We are being suspended. What are we supposed to do now? I suddenly imagine myself chopping up pig feet in the back of Old Man Two’s shop for the rest of my life. I can’t let that happen.

“Your suspension will be more permanent than Cobb’s,” the director says once it’s just us. “You’ve done enough damage. I’d like to kick both of you out of here for good but you’d probably cause even more destruction on your own.” He drags a hand down his face and heaves a sigh. My heart beats a jagged, painful rhythm in my chest. “However, you’re still both special cases and have clearance to stay in Underground. For now, I want you both to report to Junior Agent Wallowitz to return whatever weapons you borrowed from the armory without authorization.”

He points to the door and it’s clear our time is over. Hawk opens the door for me and we both exit, our feet dragging on the tan carpet. As we trudge along the hallway and go down the stairwell, Hawk whispers, “What do we do now?”

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